Separating Genealogical Fact from Fiction

For instance, my father told me that my great grandmother’s brother, John, fought for the Confederacy, was court martialed, and sentenced to be shot. At the last minute, he inadvertently gave a secret Masonic sign, and it saved him. After the war, John became a 32nd degree Mason. Here is the true story in my own words as presented by researcher Dara Sorenson based upon James Nisbet’s book Four Years on the Firing Line:

John Countiss was raised on Sand Mountain, Alabama, and enlisted as a private in the 21st Georgia Infantry during the Civil War. He attained the rank of captain, but in 1863, just before the Battle of Gettysburg, he was court martialed for disobedience, lost his commission, and was expelled from the military. Instead of going home, John fought so bravely at Gettysburg that he regained his commission on the recommendation of every officer present. A year later, he was wounded in the second battle of Winchester when a bullet lodged beneath the skin of his forehead. After being treated, he went back into battle. As I discovered through additional research, Uncle John received a Confederate pension from the state of Alabama.

Great Grandma Lizzie 
Another interesting story that I uncovered concerns my maternal great grandmother, Lizzie, who died three weeks after her son, Russell. Most of the following account was written by a daughter-in-law, but I’ll put it in my own words and add information from other sources: 

On June 21, 1911, Lizzie looked from her sickroom window to see her thirteen-year-old son become enveloped in flames while cleaning clothes with gasoline. She rolled him on the ground, but he died on the scene, and she died thirty-two days later in the Mississippi state mental hospital. The Kosciusko, Mississippi, newspaper reported her demise as follows:

“The death of this estimable lady is painfully sad. It will be remembered that only a few weeks ago, while on the bed of affliction, she lost her youngest son in a most tragic manner and never recovered from the blow. She was taken to the Sanitarium at Jackson and placed under eminent specialists by her husband, but got no relief, and death claimed her Sunday morning."

Grandpa Jason
Eight years later, her son, my grandfather, Jason Black, shipped out from Mobile Bay on the merchant ship, Pascagoula. Researcher after researcher reports that he died at sea the same year, but I can find no evidence for the claim (amateur genealogists are notorious for their non-critical acceptance of information obtained from other genealogists). The nearest I’ve come to proof is Jason’s seaman’s certificate from August 19, 1919, and the fact that seven U.S. Navy ships went down three weeks later in a hurricane off the Florida Keys. 

Much to my surprise, Jason’s grandfather—my maternal great grandfather—owned slaves. I say “much to my surprise” not because I thought my family was better than that, but because I didn’t know they had the money. However, given that both sides of my family lived in the South for generations, I suppose I should have been more surprised if they hadn’t owned slaves. In fact, one of John Brown’s men at Harper’s Ferry was an escaped slave with my surname, although I haven’t gotten far enough in my research to know if a relative owned him.